Tag Archives: Mormon literature

Still Dawning?: A Response to Michael Austin

12.8.14 | | 30 comments

Recently, I had the privilege of publishing a review of Steven Peck’s The Scholar of Moab and A Short Stay in Hell in the second issue of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute’s Mormon Studies Review. In the same issue, Michael Austin, a veteran of Mormon literary studies, published a piece entitled “The Brief History and Perpetually Exciting Future of Mormon Literary Studies.” Among Mormon literary scholars, Austin is best known for his essay “The Function of Mormon Literary Criticism at the Present Time,” which he published as a doctoral student in the mid-1990s. At the time, Austin was writing in response to the Cracroft-Jorgensen debate of the early-1990s, and his essay sought to give critics a much-needed new way to think about and order the study of Mormon fiction. It was an important essay in the development of Mormon literary theory, and it remains a touchstone of our evolving understanding of the definition of Mormon literature.

Austin’s latest essay seems deliberately less-ambitious, representing an effort to update scholars outside the field on the state of Mormon literature and Mormon literary studies. While much of the first third of the essay reiterates information Eugene England established in his landmark 1995 essay “Mormon Literature: Progress and Prospects,” Austin also includes valuable information about the study of Mormonism in American literary history and literary studies of Mormon sacred texts, particularly the Book of Mormon. His analysis of these latter two fields is where this essay excels most. Having recently published Re-reading Job: Understanding the Ancient World’s Greatest Poem (Greg Kofford Books, 2014) and the essay collection Peculiar Portrayals: Mormons on the Page, Stage, and Screen (Utah State UP, 2010), which he co-edited with Mark Decker, Austin writes from a deeply informed position and offers great insight for those who wish to begin work in these branches of Mormon literary studies.

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Guest Post: D. J. Butler’s City of the Saints: An Irreantum Review

5.29.14 | | 3 comments

Before Irreantum folded, I’d recruited a few people to write book reviews for what I thought would be the last issue. Among the reviewers was Emily Harris Adams, winner of the 2013 Mormon Lit Blitz. Emily was given the assignment to review D. J. Butler’s City of the Saints, a Mormon steampunk novel that was originally serialized and published through Amazon. After Irreantum‘s no-more-ness became manifest, Emily contacted me and asked what to do with her complimentary (i.e. FREE!) review copy. I told her to keep it and forget about the review. Not wanting the book to go to waste, though, she wrote the review anyway and sent it to me to post on A Motley Vision.

So, in memory of Irreantum, I post Emily’s review…with hope that the journal will find a new beginning sometime soon.

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After reading City of the Saints, I couldn’t quite figure out a succinct way to describe the overarching, grand picture of what I had just mentally ingested. Not until I ran into Dave Butler himself.  When he asked me what I thought of his book, I said,

“It’s history cake, isn’t it?”

And it is. There’s an unabashed reveling in the historical yumminess.

This book isn’t history candy. If you are looking for something enjoyable but without density, a fun read that happens to take place in a historical setting, turn your handcart around because this is not the right place. This story is rich and indulgent but still substantive. In other words: cake.

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Sunstone Kirtland and The Garden of Enid

5.14.14 | | 4 comments

AMVLast weekend I had the chance to attend this year’s regional Sunstone Symposium in Kirtland. I initially had not planned to attend, but after I published three cartoons in the recent issue of Sunstone, the director of the symposium invited me to give a presentation on The Garden of Enid. I gladly accepted.

Kirtland is four hours northeast of my home. Travelling with limited funds, I left at 4:30 in the morning and drove non-stop to the Stannard Stone Quarry in Chapin Forest Reservation, where the early Saints quarried stone for the temple, just two miles south of Kirtland. I had an hour to wait before the symposium, so I grabbed my camera and took a mile-long trail through the forest, hoping to see something neat—like a rock formation. The trail was all trees and moss, however, until I found the quarry itself in a creek a few muddy steps off the beaten path. A few years back, the Church and the local government had put up signage and built a wooden walkway over the creek—perhaps to prevent visitors from climbing down into the creek itself, as I was doing, to get a better view of the chisel marks in the algae-covered stone.

After snapping more pictures than I’ll ever need of the quarry, I hiked back to my car and drove to the Community of Christ’s Kirtland Temple Visitor’s Center, the conference venue, where I picked up my name tag and pocketed a few free copies of Sunstone and an old collection of Mormon cartoons by Calvin Grondahl. From there I headed to the main classroom to wait for the conference keynote address to begin and feel guilty about not making better small talk with strangers.

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Mormon Literature: A Sunny Outlook

11.11.13 | | 22 comments

By now everyone has read Mark Oppenheimer’s article on Mormon literature in the New York Times. Typical in its approach, it highlights Mormon successes in genre fiction and offers a few explanations for why these successes happen and why they aren’t more forthcoming in a Mormon-flavored “Realist literature for adults.” The reasons he puts forth seem to be as follows: Mormons are uncomfortable with realism, Mormons are afraid of “church disapproval,” and Mormons are culturally geared towards a “sunny outlook” that privileges uplifting narratives over realistic literature that presents sex, violence, and swearing without judgment and moralizing.

In his eloquent and insightful response to this article, George Handley rightly calls Oppenheimer out on these reasons, particularly the notion that literary greatness is some alchemic mixture of “great suffering,” book sales, and national recognition. Mormon writers, Handley suggest, have made great strides irrespective of these factors, and will likely keep doing so “before the rest of the world notices.” For him, rather, Mormons have “underachieved” in the realm of realistic Mormon literature—or “Great Mormon Literature”—as a result of a number of cultural flaws: their reliance on “triumphalist rhetoric,” a “thirst after quick and easy forms of [cultural] vindication,” and rather narrow ideas “about what constitutes a Mormon identity.” In making this argument, he seems to echo Samuel W. Taylor’s 46-year-old claim that Mormon literature is the captive of “positive-thinkers,” or public-relations-minded Mormons who police their people’s output for the sake of pleasing and appeasing public opinion. He also suggests—taking a cue, perhaps, from Nephi Anderson’s account of the artist in Zion—that Mormons need to do a better job of being a community that cares for (and about) its artists—including artists whose works are neither nationally recognized nor compatible with the ideology and aesthetics of “positive-thinking” Mormons.  

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Field Notes on Language and Kinship

9.25.13 | | 10 comments

I’m indulging in some shameless self-promotion, but only because what I’m promoting is a fruit of my work on Fire in the Pasture and speaks to the publication of Mormon literature (especially via collaborative effort) and my continued promotion of Mormon poets, poetries, and poetics.

Yesterday morning via his Mormon Artists Group e-newsletter, Glimpses, Glen Nelson announced the publication of my single-author book. Here’s what he said:

Mormon Artists Group is pleased to announce the publication of
Field Notes on Language and Kinshipby Tyler Chadwick
artworks by Susan Krueger-Barber

A landmark publication appeared in 2011, an anthology of contemporary Mormon poetry. It was an ambitious undertaking that, it can be argued, is among the most important books on Mormonism to appear in the first years of the century. Unknown to many, even inside the Church, Mormon poets have recently become regular contributors to the leading poetry publications in the country. Their poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Paris Review, Poetry, The Iowa Review, The New Republic, Slate, The Southern Review, among many, many others. The award-winning anthology, Fire in the Pasture: Twenty-first Century Mormon Poets, presented 82 poets’ new works in its 522 pages.

The editor for Fire in the Pasture was Tyler Chadwick, a young scholar and poet from Idaho. After the publication of the anthology, Mormon Artists Group approached Chadwick to write a book to answer a simple question: Why does poetry matter to you? He responded with Field Notes on Language and Kinship. It is Mormon Artists Group’s 24th project.

The book is a direct response to the works in Fire in the Pasture. Chadwick reacts to them in several ways, as a scholar, memoirist, essayist, and poet. Field Notes on Language and Kinship is published as a two-volume edition. The anthology, Fire in the Pasture: Twenty-first Century Mormon Poets, is rebound in hardcover; and Chadwick’s original volume is bound as a companion work, covered with hand-pounded amate barkskin papers from Mexico’s Otomi Indians and brown Japanese Asahi silk. The two are presented in a slipcase. A commercial paperback is also available from Amazon.com.

One of Chadwick’s sources of inspiration is visual art, and Field Notes on Language and Kinship includes eight artworks created especially for this project by Susan Krueger-Barber. Just as Chadwick’s text brings multiple disciplines of literature to bear, Krueger-Barber’s works are multi-disciplinary, mixed media works. Each of them combines photography, painting, and collage (using fragments torn from a copy of Fire in the Pasture). The publication is limited to 25 copies, signed by the artists and numbered.

To read excerpts from Field Notes on Language and Kinship, to explore the original artworks, and to acquire the book and/or the artworks, visit our website.

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Announcing The AMV Guide to Mormon Literature

8.20.13 | | 7 comments

It seems to me that Mormon literature as a field is difficult to approach. Unless you are one of the few who have the chance to take the Mo-lit class at BYU, there’s no real easy way to get an overview of the field. This makes it difficult to enter into the conversations that happen here and at Dawning of a Brighter Day and elsewhere. Some of these conversations have been going on for a long time, and it’s hard to know how and where and when to jump in. I aim to change that in a low-key, non-scholarly way.

Here’s the plan:

I am going to write The AMV Guide to Mormon Literature. I’m going to do so by writing short entries on a variety of topics in Scrivener, which is a fantastic tool for dealing with lots of information and allows one to easily output writing in a variety of forms. I will post each entry as it is complete to AMV and ask for feedback. I’ll then do a brief edit of the entry based on the feedback and move on to the next topic. When I hit the point where I’ve covered everything that needs to be covered (with the caveat, of course, that there could always be more), I will then compile the whole set of entries in Scrivener, add a simple cover, and publish the complete guide as an ebook which I will then offer for sale through the standard channels. Profits from the sale of the book will go to pay for web hosting for AMV, Wilderness Interface Zone and LDS Cinema Online.

While this guide will be my (personal) voice, my (radical-middle) concerns, and my (idiosyncratic) perspective, I will also welcome feedback on each entry that I post. Anyone who provides it will be added to a list of co-conspirators that will be published at the back of the book. more

Questions for Margaret Blair Young

3.21.13 | | 8 comments

Salvador-202x300Recently, I sent Association for Mormon Letters President Margaret Blair Young a list of questions about her current projects with Darius Gray–a revision of their Standing on the Promises novel series and the feature film The Heart of Africaas well as her own work as a creative writer and AML president. Kindly, Margaret took time away from her busy schedule to answer them for me. 

I’ve split the Q&A into two parts. Answers to the questions relating to Standing on the Promises and The Heart of Africa will be featured on Modern Mormon Men sometime soon. Below are her answers to my questions about her earlier work, AML, and future projects.

NOTE: I plan to post the Q&A in its entirety on The Low-Tech World as soon as Modern Mormon Men runs the remainder of it.

Throughout your career as a writer, you’ve seemed to gravitate towards stories about marginalization within Mormon communities. For example, in your novel Salvador, your protagonist is a divorced Mormon woman who visits relatives who operate a fringe Mormon commune in Central America. Heresies of Nature centers around a character who has been severely debilitated by multiple sclerosis. What draws you to these stories? Why do Mormons need them?

What drew me to write Salvador?  My life.  You’d be surprised at how much of that is autobiographical.  Heresies of Nature?  My sister-in-law died of M.S.  I turned that novel into a play, and my sister passed away on opening night.  It was a remarkable experience for all of us.  My husband had already written a tribute to his sister on the playbill, so every audience member received that.  Cast members attended Nancy’s funeral, and Nancy’s nurses attended the play.  But obviously, I believe in dealing with hard issues.  If we don’t learn to deal with them, we will almost certainly lack empathy when others are hitting them.  We need to train our minds and magnify our faith as our children grow in this internet age.  They will come to us with questions to bridge what they learn in Sunday school and what they read online.  Our answers will need to reflect our knowledge and the example of who we are in this age and place of Mormonism; what we cling to as our essential and inviolate morality.  This is a dynamic religion.  We may still stand in holy places, even while acknowledging that many in the past became detached from their “better angels.”

Can you trace the DNA of your work as a fiction writer? Who has informed your work the most intellectually, stylistically?

My first influences were the classics, Moby Dick and The Brothers Karamazov being my first teachers.  And they were teachers.  I took Melville’s book with me to Guatemala and read it three times without anyone guiding me.The Brothers Karamazov was the first book I fell in love with.  It transformed me into a reader.  Before reading that, I cheated.  I read Cliff Notes.  Stylistically?  I read a lot of James Joyce, Alice Munro, Faulkner.  When I turned to Black history fifteen years ago, I read history books.  Seems like hundreds.  I find I’m actually more at home with historians now than I am with fiction writers.  A really good short story feels like dessert to me.

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In the Beginning, the End: Some Initial Thoughts on Susan Elizabeth Howe’s Salt

2.21.13 | | 4 comments

Salt Cover by Ron Stucki for Signature Books

Salt Cover by Ron Stucki for Signature Books


This past Saturday, my review copy of Susan Elizabeth Howe‘s new book, Salt, arrived. I’ll be reviewing it for AMV and expect to have my essay completed and posted sometime in the next month or two, but in the meantime I wanted to post my initial response to the collection.

While I haven’t yet read beyond the first poem, I’m anxious to sit down and keep company with Susan’s words, in part because of the first poem. As all stories arguably do, Salt‘s narrative begins with Adam and Eve—or at least with a revision thereof: his name is “Bob,” while she remains nameless. In the collection opener, “Python Killed to Save Woman,” Eve (I’ll call her) wrestles with a snake: “Lucy, / short for Lucifer,” the couple’s “pet python,” which they let “slither about [their] bedroom.” Probably not the smartest idea, as you can imagine, something Eve realizes the night she wakes because Lucy has “wrapped around [her]” like the snake would live meat. Which, of course, the woman is—at least to a hungry snake. Sensing the struggle beside him, Bob wakes and grabs his “Swiss army knife” to take care of the snake, but instead he gets “enmeshed” in the wrestling match, though not so much that he can’t grab the phone and call for help.

And that’s where this allegory of a poem leaves the pair: struggling for life in Lucifer’s tightening squeeze, Eve wondering “whose death” will come first, although the poem’s title is a clue as to who wins. Little matter, though, because in the end, of this poem as of life, death gets the last word (until Christ speaks up, that is).

Death: the heritage of a world fallen away from Paradise, the proper end of that system’s decomposition. By beginning Salt with Eden’s end, Susan reminds readers of their mortality, which was made possible by the Fall, and opens the way to explore the impact of death on life and language. Salt‘s opening poem, then, is a memento mori in a poetry collection that positions itself as a preservative—salt is, after all, essential to animal life. As such, it’s pretty valuable thing to have around. Hence Christ to his disciples: You are the salt of the earth—your presence here should preserve and thus extend the principles of Life. Hence Paul to early Christians: Let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt—let your language tend toward preservation of the principles of life. Hence the implication of Susan’s title: here are some words dear to me as salt. May they preserve you as they have preserved me.

Here’s hoping.

(Cross-posted here.)